A Strong Iraqi Woman

The pain was unbearable. Doctor Kayoosh Radi stood in the ICU and looked down at her beautiful child Anshu. The 9 year old seemed so small in the bed. There were so many tubes and wires connected to him that he almost looked like a robot.

Despite the cold of the room she was sweating. Kayoosh’s heart was beating so fast that her face had flushed  red. Tears streamed down her eyes an she sobbed uncontrollably.  She still could not believe this. How could a 9 year old healthy skinny boy have a heart attack? Of course,  she knew the answer, but did not want to think about it.

She forced herself to look at the readings on the machines and she knew Anshu could possibly die tonight.  Kayoosh had seen many dead children in Baghdad. None of them looked this  pretty. The bodies were usually horribly mutilated from the bombs or bullets from whatever group happened to be doing the killing that day. Early in her career, she had hardened herself to feel no emotion at the sight.

But this was not Baghdad. This was not supposed to happen here. This was Greenwich Connecticut, where she had always felt comfortable and at peace and safe.

The Chief of Cardiology, Dr. Aaron Gold came into the room and spoke softly to Kayoosh.

“I will perform the operation myself Kay; first thing tomorrow morning. His vital signs need to improve before we can do the operation.  We will find out exactly what happened to Anshu and fix it. There is nothing you can do here. By the way, Ryan called. He is still stuck at O’Hare airport with that blizzard. He said to tell you he will be home as soon as he can get a flight.”

Ryan was usually the one who helped Kayoosh through everything. He was the one who had saved her from the horrors of Iraq. Ryan O’Brien had come to Baghdad with a group  of other journalists to report on how the medical establishment was surviving the constant deluge of civilian casualties. Kayoosh noticed him immediately.

He was tall, muscular and towered over the other people in the crowded halls of the Baghdad hospital. He was incredibly handsome, but what she noticed the most was the way he spoke to the patients in the hospital.  Unlike the other reporters, he actually cared about what would happen to the injured. The other reporters only wanted to get a quick soundbite and then get back to the bar of the hotel. Ryan stayed after the other reporters left, and spent the whole day helping to carry stretchers, empty trash and sometimes just hold hands with grieving family members.

Kayoosh liked everything about him – except his name. It was such a stupid name. What kind of parents would give their child a rhyming name? Ryan O’Brien; it just sounded ridiculous.  Ryan came back to the hospital again and again to “interview” her. She knew it was just an excuse to talk to her, but she liked it. So they had their “interviews” over coffee, over lunch and finally at dinner.

For a Westerner Ryan knew an incredible amount about what was going on in Iraq. Not only was he a reporter, but he came from a very wealthy family with political connections. He knew things that even top Iraqi officials had not yet heard.

One night over dinner, he looked at her earnestly and said, “Kayoosh, you need to think about leaving Iraq. The country is being split among religious and sectarian lines. You are a Christian and a woman doctor. There are groups who hate you just for being Christian and others who hate you just for being an educated woman. This is not the Iraq you grew up in. Don’t make the same mistake your father made. Please get out.”

Kayoosh shuddered at the mention of her father. He had been a wonderful well-liked man who had raised her alone when her mother died in childbirth.  He had been so happy at the fall of Sadam and he loved the American liberators. Then he had made the mistake of openly criticizing the corruption of the new Iraqi government. He was proud of his ability to speak English and gave a lengthy interview to a British T.V. crew, detailing the corruption in the new government. Three days later, as he drank coffee at an outdoor cafe, a black SUV jumped the curb and crushed him as he sat. The driver of the SUV was not charged. The police ruled it a car accident. The driver just happened to be a Captain in the Security Force who was promoted to Major a week after the “accident.”

But Kayoosh refused to leave. She thought that the fact that she never made any type of political or religious statement would protect her. All she did was try to heal people of all religious groups and ranks.

It was not enough.

Things seemed to get better. The violence died down and the streets had once again filled up with people. The Baghdad hospital emergency room had reverted back to  the normal inflow of people with cuts and scrapes, heart palpitations and appendicitis. No more victims of snipers and bombs.

Then one day Kayoosh was deep in the center of the hospital picking up a set of X-Rays from the lab, when a car pulled up to the emergency room door. Two men jumped out shouted a slogan and threw a hand grenade into the room. They drove off seconds before the grenade exploded.

Kayoosh ran back to the emergency room and saw the carnage. As she stood there an old woman started screaming at her. It took Kayoosh a few seconds to understand that the woman was shouting, “Your fault! It’s your fault! You were the one they wanted! Your fault!” Other people in the room said that the two men had shouted something about it being an affront to God for a Christian woman to be a doctor. No one could remember exactly what they said.

Kayoosh simply went catatonic. She could not move. She stood motionless and speechless in the center of the destroyed emergency room for over an hour. Some people screamed at her and others tried to give comfort. Doctors and nurses finally just ignored her and walked past her like a statue while they treated the wounded.

Kayoosh was still standing there when Ryan came into the hospital. Without saying a word he picked her up and carried her out of the hospital as easily as if she were made of feathers. He put her in a car and took her back to his hotel. He laid her gently on the bed and pulled a comforter over her. She  remembered his whispering, “You have done all that you can. I will take care of you now.”

Kayoosh lay back and slept. For the first time since being a child she felt completely and utterly safe. Ryan was so big and so strong, and the bed was so soft. Kayoosh slept deeply and dreamed  of a picnic she once had with her father on a beautiful Iraq spring day.

Kayoosh slept for almost twenty hours. When she awoke, Ryan was sitting in a chair by her bed and had a tray of breakfast for her. Over strong coffee and sweet pastry, he asked her to be his wife and she said yes.

Ryan used his family’s political connections to get Kayoosh a  Visa. Things were getting worse and worse in Iraq and people were scrambling to get out. It took all the family’s pull (and quite a few donations to various political campaigns) but the Visa was obtained.

Then came their life in Greenwich Connecticut. It was like nothing Kayoosh could have imagined. The accents and the people and the climate seemed so strange. There was so much wealth and food and fine cars. There were no soldiers patrolling with M-16s. No check points or pat-downs.

Ryan said she did not have to work but Kayoosh insisted that whatever it took she would pass the qualifications to practice medicine in America. At first it was humiliating. She had to prove herself all over again. She had to take tests and courses and board exams and training, just to prove to the Americans that she was a real doctor. But her skill and professionalism impressed the Americans and eventually she was on the staff at Greenwich hospital.

He mentor was old Doctor Gold. He became her best friend and a sort of father figure. She knew that back in Iraq she would not have dared to associate with a Jew.  It would have been too dangerous for both of them.  Kayoosh was not even sure of there were any Jews left in Iraq. She realized that Doctor Gold was the first Jew she had ever actually met.

When Anshu was born it was the happiest day of Kayoosh’s life. Ryan had wanted to name the baby “Andy”, but Kayoosh insisted that he at least get an Iraqi first name. After all, his last name was going to be O’Brien.

Kayoosh went home and sat on the bed in Anshu’s room. His shelves were crammed with all sorts of American football items. There were pictures famous players, sports magazines, and 3 footballs. Anshu worshiped his father Ryan and wanted to be the muscular star athlete that Ryan had always been.

But little Anshu was built more like his mother. He was small and delicately framed. He would never be a linebacker or even a quarterback. Kayoosh had always known that when Anshu got older she would have to gently  explain that even if Anshu exercised every day for the rest of his life he would never be on the New England Patriots.  Kayoosh started to weep as she realized that there may not be a rest of his life. He could die tonight or on the operating table tomorrow morning.

“I killed him didn’t I?” said Ryan quietly.

Kayoosh looked up and saw her husband standing  in the doorway of the room, looking very haggard.

“I thought you were stuck in Chicago,” said Kayoosh flatly.

“There was a break in the weather and they got some planes out.”

Ryan sat on the bed next to Kayoosh. He took her hand and looked directly into her eyes. “Tell me the truth Kay. Tell me medically exactly what happened.  Don’t lie to me. Not you. Did I kill our boy?”

Kayoosh used all her strength and transformed herself into her medical persona. She used the same neutral tone and even voice she used to use with parents back in Baghdad hospital. “The fracture that Anshu sustained when the two of you were playing football in the backyard two months ago was very severe. It was a thigh bone. That is one of the largest bones in the body. The fracture of such a major bone can cause complications.”

“But he was fine,” said Ryan hopefully. “Kids bones heal fast. That’s what all the doctors said. Anshu didn’t even have a limp after the cast come off. He was fine. He was fine.”  Ryan kept saying “He was fine” over and over again like some sort of mantra that would make everything better.

Kayoosh continued in her professional tone. “With a major bone fracture a tiny splinter of bone can get into the bloodstream. It can circulate through the body thousands of time without problems, but then one day it can catch on something vital. In Anshu’s case a splinter caught on a valve in his heart.”

“It was my fault.” said Ryan. “I should have known he was too small to play with that roughly. I pushed him too hard. I killed our boy.”

Ryan lay down on the bed.  His large body could barely fit on the boy’s mattress.  For the first time since she had know him, Ryan looked weak.

Kayoosh stood up and pulled a blanked over Ryan. She bent down and gently took off his shoes. The she said soothingly. “I will take care of us now. Tomorrow Dr. Gold will operate on Anshu and with microsurgery repair the tear the bone splinter made. Then over the coming weeks they will filter every drop of blood in Anshu’s body and remove any other bone splinters that might exist.”

Ryan looked up with a sort of pleading in his eyes. “Tell me the truth Kay. This type of operation – the surgery and the filtering- does it always work? Can they really do the repair and get rid of any other bone splinters?”

“It sounds a lot more complicated that it is, ” Kayoosh lied. “With modern techniques and an an advanced hospital like Greenwich, it is almost a routine procedure.”

Ryan fell into an exhausted sleep while Kayoosh sat in a chair wide awake. “I will take care of us now,” she whispered.  “It is my turn to be the strong one again. You and Anshu will need all my strength to get through this.”

Kayoosh looked at the clock and knew that she would not sleep that night. In two more hours she would take a shower and go back to the hospital to observe the operation on her son.  She would not allow herself to cry any more. She had been too weak for too long. It was time for her to be once again what she really was. A strong Iraqi woman.

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